Bill Clinton’s telecom law: Twenty years later

Bill Clinton’s telecom law: Twenty years later
© Getty Images

Washington’s tech policy wonks are celebrating an anniversary this week: 20 years ago Monday, President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act into law at the Library of Congress.

Designed to de-regulate aspects of the telecommunications business, it was the first overhaul of the law that created the Federal Communications Commission in more than six decades.

ADVERTISEMENT
Supporters of the law said it would create more competition in the telecommunications industry that, at the time, was only beginning to grapple with the transformative power of the Internet.

“It promotes competition as the key to opening new markets and new opportunities,” Clinton said at the bill signing. “It will help connect every classroom in America to the information superhighway by the end of the decade. It will protect consumers by regulating the remaining monopolies for a time and by providing a roadmap for deregulation in the future.”

Among other things, the bill brought deregulation to the cable industry and lifted the national cap on radio station ownership. It also eased the rules that apply to broadcasters.

It touched on universal service, the idea that the government should help make sure that all Americans have access to communications services. The act authorized the FCC's E-Rate program, which helps connect schools and libraries. That program remains in effect today; in 2013, President Obama asked the commission to look at expanding it.

A number of technology groups will commemorate the law’s passage next week, with players from big-name technology companies participating.

 

On Monday, technology groups and companies are expected to mark the signing of the bill. INCOMPAS, which represents the so-called “competitive” communications companies and used to be called COMPTEL, will hold a policy summit on Wednesday that includes Colin Crowell, the vice president of global public policy at Twitter, and representatives from the FCC and 21st Century Fox. The group is also throwing a party in honor of the anniversary.

The Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy will also host an event evaluating the successes and failures of the law with some of the people involved in its creation.

Some have argued that parts of the law had detrimental effects on the communications market. A 2005 report from public interest group Common Cause found that political forces blunted its impact.

“In many ways, the Telecom Act failed to serve the public and did not deliver on its promise of more competition, more diversity, lower prices, more jobs and a booming economy,” the group said. “Instead, the public got more media concentration, less diversity, and higher prices.”

Technology has also changed substantially since the law was signed in 1996. Internet speeds have risen, with Americans making the switch from dial-up to broadband, which in turn has disrupted the old order in other industries, like broadcasting. And more recently, the rise of smartphones has forced regulators to confront challenges posed by mobile networks.

It had seemed as though lawmakers might update the law as the 20th anniversary approached. In 2013, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) announced that they were embarking on a multi-year process to update the law.

“A lot has happened since the last update,” Walden said. "A lot of companies have been born out of the innovation of the communications act. There’s a lot that’s changed in the legal world.” 

The lawmakers spent time talking to various stakeholders and begin to hone in on issues that could be addressed. But then the debate became more complicated when the FCC approved rules governing net neutrality almost a year ago.

Those regulations — which increased the FCC’s regulatory authority over Internet service providers — are reviled by many Republicans, who view them as a power grab. Their implementation heightened partisan tensions on the commission and has ratcheted up tensions between Chairman Tom Wheeler and Congress. 

“Net neut­ral­ity cer­tainly was a mini-atom­ic bomb in the middle of [the communications act update],” Walden told reporters last summer, before noting that he held hope that some sort of piecemeal update would be possible. 

Since then, neither Walden's subcommittee or his Senate colleagues have gotten closer to an update.